How to learn a foreign language?
Note: The text below gives my opinion about how to learn a language. To see info about language learning platforms and systems click here.
A lot of nonsense is spoken about how to learn languages mostly by people with an ulterior motive such as selling some sort of language course or academic people who are too involved in abstract theories with little experience of the real world. It is almost impossible to do scientific experiments to find out how we learn languages, maybe in the future when we fully understand how the brain works it will be possible but until then all we can do is observe people learning languages to see if we can gain insights into the sort of conditions which lead to successful language learning. I believe that my own opinion is worth listening to mainly because of the amount of time I have spent both as as language learner and as a teacher. I have spent the last 26 years learning Spanish and I spent about 14 years teaching English to Spanish people. I was mostly a private one to one teacher so I have spent thousands of hours observing how people learn in close proximity.
It is interesting to consider how we learn our own native language. By the age of 5 most children have good communicative ability and have learned a very complex system of grammatical rules. This happens as if by magic. Nobody has made any grammatical explanations and nobody has consciously acted as a teacher. Nobody really understands how this happens. All we can say is that there is some sort of mysterious language acquisition device which enables us to learn languages. Many people refer to this as the LAD. It is widely believed that the LAD which helps us to learn our native language so easily becomes much less effective during the teenage years. In most cases to be completely bilingual you would have to have learned both languages before the age of 14. However, in my opinion the LAD never completely ceases to function and as long as we can expose the LAD to the correct input in the right circumstances, language acquisition is possible at any stage of life. In my opinion the best way of learning a language would be to expose your inner LAD to the right environment for about 80% of the time but also have some more formal training in grammar to help you understand how the structure of the language works.
Maybe the most rapid way of learning a language would be to fall in love with someone who is a native speaker of the foreign language, then go and live in their country and have no contact with your own language. After 6 months of such a total immersion most people would be very proficient. This is impossible for most people but if you try to find out why such a method is so successful and then replicate some of the factors it will lead to good ways of learning a language.
The most important key to success in language learning is motivation. If you have no real reason to learn a foreign language you will need incredible willpower and it is unlikely that you will ever succeed. If you consider that learning a language is a tedious chore then give up now, don’t waste any more time. Do something you like doing.
So, which is the best method of language learning? If ever you read some publicity for a language course that says their method will make you fluent in 3 weeks you can be certain that it is a lie. It is like trying to lose weight permanently by eating a diet of cabbage soup or getting fit by using a slendertone machine. It is best to use a mixture of methods which suit you personally and meets you own personal needs. Any method must be enjoyable or it will fail very quickly. In my opinion it is not a good idea to have too much faith in just one method of language learning you should do a whole range of activities which will help you learn.
One of the slowest most inefficient ways of learning a language is in a classroom full of people. School children often spend 10 years learning a foreign language with almost no result. This is probably because at school the teacher has to stick to teaching grammar because that is the only way to keep control over a classroom full of children. The results from adult education classes are a little better but only if the teacher is very good and if you also study outside of the classroom.
Here are some activities and ideas which can help you learn a language.
Attend language classes but don’t expect to learn very fast unless you do a lot of supplementary study.
Use vocabulary learning systems based on flashcards – for example duo lingua.
Watch films in the target language but with subtitles in your own language. (you can now do this with netflix)
I have recently had a go at making my own course for learning languages. It is just a personal project for me. I believe that flashcard learning is a really good way of learning vocabulary. There are currently 2 languages. Learn Spanish or
Use the immense amount of free online courses available on internet.
Sign up for the “word of the day” offered by many sites.
Do anything to make friends with people of the target language. Go to pen friend sites. Participate in online forums and interactive discussions on topics that you are interested in.
Become a couchsurfer host and have visitors in your own house from the target language. With couchsurfing you don’t actually have to put people up in your house you can just arrange to go out and show them around your city. couchsurfing.com
Use the target language version of websites which you use. eg in online banking, facebook and email accounts.
Volunteer in community programs where many people speak the target language. You can kill two birds with one stone, help people and learn their language.
Do a workaway or a helpx in a place that speak the language that you want to learn. More info
If you spend time commuting in your car, listen to one of the many language learning courses designed for the car. Better still do car pooling with someone from the target language.
Do online dating and have romantic liaisons with people from the target language.
Read books which have specially reduced vocabularies designed for language learners.
Don’t be too scared of making mistakes. The most important thing is communication.
Go to online chatrooms which use the target language. For example
Read parallel texts which have your native language on the left and the target language on the right. You can glance over if you don’t understand something. example
Wake up in the morning by setting your alarm clock or internet radio to listen to the news in the target language.
If you have enough money get a private native teacher to come to your house.
When you have a conversation with a native speaker constantly monitor what they say. For example if you learn Spanish there are 2 forms of the verb “to be”. Until you are familiar with how to use them you should continuously question why they are using one form or the other.
If you look on internet you can find linguistic interchanges for people who want to meet up in a bar and have cultural interchanges.
I have no experience of one to one skype classes with a native but this is probably worth investigating.
I don’t want to advocate heavy drinking but drinking a small amount of alcohol will make you feel less nervous and inhibited when you try to speak another language.
Note that Jehovas’s Witnesses will give you hours of free conversation classes if you invite them into your house to speak about religion.
This post is also available in: Italian